WHO: Rockets 94, Blazers 89
WHAT: The Rockets’ fourth win in a row, and fifth in their last six games, has them still alone in 6th place in the West at 32-25 with 9 games left in the regular season. Houston is a game ahead of Dallas and Denver – the respective seventh and eighth place teams – and a game and a half behind Memphis for 5th, and two games behind the Clippers for 4th and homecourt advantage through the first round of the playoffs. The good news is five of the Rockets’ remaining nine games are at Toyota Center. But big games still loom. They host Utah (a game and a half out of 8th in the West) on Wednesday and host Phoenix (one game out of 8th) on Friday before a home-and-home set at Denver on Sunday and next Monday.
WHAT HAPPENED?: The Blazers didn’t shoot straight and the Rockets did. That’s pretty much the gist of the story from Monday’s game, as the Rockets built up a 14-point first half lead with ease before settling for a nine-point advantage at the half. Portland rallied back in the third quarter to tie things up at 53-53, but the Rockets got the lead back up to 10 a couple of times before playing comfortably in the 5-7 point range late. Portland shot 39.8 percent from the field, and while the Rockets did a fine job of forcing the Blazers into ill-advised long-rangers, Portland’s shot selection was not the best. The Blazers seemed content misfiring from the outside instead of trying to exploit a Rockets defense that surrenders 46 points in the paint per game. They had issues establishing LaMarcus Aldridge inside, and that’s been a common theme against the Rockets lately -dominant big men struggling now against Houston since Marcus Camby and Samuel Dalembert are sound, shot-blocking-hungry defenders who don’t need double teams for help, so that allows Houston’s perimeters to stay with their men and not surrender open 3-point looks. Houston, meanwhile, shot 46.2 percent from the field, including a blistering 52.6 percent (10-of-19) from 3. If it weren’t for the Blazers’ 13 offensive rebounds, this one would have been a runaway. Goran Dragic, in what was possibly an audition for the looming unrestricted free agent against a team expected to boast a load of cap space this summer, led the way with 22 points, 7 assists and 3 steals. Chase Budinger followed with 15 points, including a slew of timely 3s in the second and fourth quarters to keep Portland at bay.
THE LOWRY WE KNOW: In his second game back to the court following a month-long absence, Kyle Lowry looked like the Lowry of old. He stripped opponents time and time again, showing the smart and physical defense that had been missing in Houston’s backcourt. He raised up confidently on jumpers, showing no hesitation and actually looking for his shot opposed to Sunday when he was fine just passing and moving the ball. He attacked the rim. He buried 3s. It’s difficult to believe that he has even missed any time at all, as he burned the Blazers for 14 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists and 2 steals in 22 minutes. He hit 5 of his 6 shots, and we saw more of the coveted backcourt lineup with him at point and Dragic running the 2, which we can expect more of as the playoffs loom. The two complement each other brilliantly, and it’s always been my opinion that Dragic is more explosive off the ball than with it.
BOMBS AWAY: I’ve knocked the Rockets for their troubling inability to get to the free-throw line (while allowing opponents a red carpet to the charity stripe), but that trait has been knocked down a peg due to their recent sharpshooting from 3-point range. Over the last six games, the Rockets are hitting a sizzling 46.2 percent of their triples. This is aided by the fact that they’re allowing few looks defensively. Over those six games, Houston boasts a +10.5 point advantage over its foes in 3s, which has tempered the fact that they get outshot and out-attempted (is that a word?) at the free-throw line. The Rockets entered Monday’s game 12th in the NBA in 3-point makes and 9th in 3-point percentage. Even more important? They’re 4th in opponents’ 3-point percentage and 6th in opponents’ 3-point attempts. The 3-pointer is a deadly weapon for the Rockets, who have a plethora of quality shooters, and it seems they’re being more conscious and willing to take any look afforded to them from 23’9″.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN?:It was yet another game in which the Rockets took care of business, jumping on a lesser team early and never letting up. More importantly, the last few have come on the road, where Houston now thrives and has found immeasurable confidence on this road trip thanks to big wins in Chicago and L.A. Long gone are the days when Houston played down to its competition. Portland and Sacramento both stood as trap games in which the Rockets of earlier this season would have likely let bite them. But there is a sense of urgency with this team now, and ever since Marcus Camby coming on board and now with Lowry back in the fold, they’re running on all cylinders, playing with a swift swagger that had eluded them in years past. Their reward is now a stretch in which three of their next four games are at home.